By: Zach Metkler, The Burgh Blog Writer
Now that the dust has settled on the 2016 NFL Draft, the potential roles of rookies around the league is starting to come into view. For the Steelers, many people are waiting to see what type class the team put together. Many analysts and fans have been highly critical of the team’s selections in the draft, but what are the realistic expectations for each of the rookies? One thing is for certain: the Steelers were again focused on rebuilding their defense.
2016 Draft Recap:
1. Artie Burns, CB, Miami
2. Sean Davis, S, Maryland
3. Javon Hargrave, DT, South Carolina State
4. Jerald Hawkins, OT, LSU
6. Travis Feeney, OLB, Washington
7. DeMarcus Ayers, WR, Houston
7. Tyler Matakevich, ILB, Temple
1. Artie Burns, CB, Miami
Most draft pundits expected the 2016 NFL Draft to be the year the team finally addressed the secondary in full force and the team did just that. The issue is that many fans were highly disappointed with the teams selection. Before I give Burns’ realistic expectations, I want to lay out some points that many fans need to consider:
- Fans seem to believe that Burns would have likely still been available at the end of the 2nd round when the team made the 58th selection. Reports surfaced that the Kansas City Chiefs had planned on taking Burns with the 28th pick. Steelers GM Kevin Colbert reported that the team had Houston CB William Jackson III and Burns graded very closely and once the Bengals snatched up Jackson III, Burns was the top player left on their big board. So, at least to the Steelers, the pick was the only clear-cut choice for the team. Add in the fact that the team had trade offers from other teams (likely the Denver Broncos, which traded up to pick #26 to take Memphis QB Paxton Lynch) and that the Chiefs would reportedly select Burns at #28, the Steelers could not miss on the opportunity to take their top rated player. Which leads me to my next point…
- The Steelers were looking for a long, athletic, ball-hawking corner. The only other player that had a potential for a 1st round grade at cornerback was Mackensie Alexander, but he was not the type of cornerback the team was looking for (because sorry to break it to you, Steelers fans, but what WE want is completely irrelevant to the Steelers front office). Additionally, Burns was a much higher rated than many people give him credit for. Many draft pundits had him as a late 1st/early 2nd round draft pick (including draft guru Mel Kiper Jr.). If you TRULY believe that cornerback was the largest need for the team and Burns was their highest rated player at the position, the pick can hardly be considered a reach, especially considering the cornerbacks that were selected after Burns. Here are the cornerbacks that went after Burns in the 2nd round:
- Miami Dolphins, Pick 38: Xavien Howard, CB, Baylor (6’0″, 201 lbs.)
- Minnesota Vikings, Pick 54: Mackensie Alexander, CB, Clemson (5’10”, 190 lbs.)
- Indianapolis Colts, Pick 57: T.J. Green, CB/S, Clemson (6’2″, 209 lbs.)
- New England Patriots, Pick 60: Cyrus Jones, CB, Alabama (5’10”, 197 lbs.)
- Carolina Panthers, Pick 62: James Bradberry, CB, Samford (6’1″, 211 lbs.)
- Each of the cornerbacks listed in the previous bullet all come with faults of their own:
- Howard is a much rawer prospect with suspect long speed and an extremely handsy player. Add in the fact that he is an ineffective run-defender, he was not the corner the team needed. (Projected round: 2-3)
- Alexander is a quick player but did not have the desired length that many teams are looking for with a true #1 corner on the outside. Additionally, his 0 interceptions and only 10 passes defended in his career raised questions about his ability to make plays on the ball, which is a factor the team was looking for in their cornerbacks. Once considered a 1st round selection, his stock plummeted leading up to the draft due to these concerns. (Projected round: 2)
- Green has always been knocked for inability to consistently make open-field tackles. While at Clemson, he was only a 1-year starter and was asked to play as a high safety too much, which might be a driving factor with his shaky development. He never showed great burst when closing in on tackles and has never been a “thumper”. (Projected round: 2-3)
- Jones, for all intents and purposes, is almost an Antwon Blake clone. He is a very generous 5’10” and too often lets receivers blow past him in coverage without having the necessary recovery speed to allow this to routinely happen. Jones also showed that he is easily beat by sizable receivers, which there are plenty of in the NFL. Not exactly a #1 caliber guy (nor will he ever be one in New England). (Projected round: 3)
- While Bradberry looks the part of a typical cornerback, he boasts horrendous footwork and balance, which often makes it hard for him to effectively transition into zone coverage. He also has a problem keeping pace with quick receivers off the line, which creates separation. Unlike a lot of athletic corners, he doesn’t do a great job of recovering when beat off the line. (Projected round: 3-4).
- No matter how you feel about the Burns pick, there was no other cornerback after him that was going to make an instant impact or even help the team (which is also not me saying that Burns is going to make an instant impact. I will get to that in a second). Fans argue that there were players that the Steelers could have taken instead that would make a bigger impact. The players taken right after Burns? QB Paxton Lynch, DT Kenny Clark, OG Joshua Garnett, DT Robert Nkemdiche, DT Vernon Butler, OT Germain Ifedi, DE Emmanuel Ogbah, OLB Kevin Dodd, OLB Jaylon Smith, TE Hunter Henry. Which one of these players would have made a bigger impact in their first season? With the draft completed, the team was able to steal DL Javon Hargrave in the 3rd round, who was considered one of the top two nose tackles in the draft. So cool your jets, Steelers Nation. The selection of Burns makes more sense than you might think.
OK… now that my rant is over, I will get off my high horse and get to the real discussion at hand. Saying that Burns is a raw prospect might be an understatement. Primarily used as a press-man corner, he will likely need time to learn the nuances of the Steelers complex zone defense but when you have the natural traits that Burns has, it is always a risk worth taking. With his 4.4 speed, he has athleticism to be a natural fit into the Steelers scheme after some time. He has already shown during OTA’s that he has top-class recovery speed when chasing down receivers when beat, doing it against the best receiver in the league: Antonio Brown. Now while we shouldn’t be running to make Pro Bowl votes for the raw rookie, the potential is definitely there. The unfortunate part is that Burns will not be the immediate force that the Steelers necessarily need at corner but heres the good part: while the Steelers have a big need at cornerback, they still have 2 players capable of holding down the fort while Burns goes through his growing pains in William Gay and Ross Cockrell. Realistically, Burns will start out as the #4 corner during training camp behind Gay, Cockrell, and 2nd year corner Senquez Golson, who might as well be a rookie after missing all of last season with a shoulder injury. This isn’t all bad, since the Steelers spent a large amount of time in their nickel package, where they had 3 corners on the field, meaning Burns would be the 1st corner off the bench. Burns’ impact will all come down to how quickly he is able to not make rookie mistakes, which could be as early as the beginning of the season or as late as next year’s training camp. The Steelers never shy away from giving their 1st rounders ample playing time during their rookie seasons and they will likely give Burns every opportunity to see time on the field and try to crack the starting lineup. There will be times where it isn’t pretty but Burns is a talented player and very exciting to watch. He is the type of cornerback that fans have been begging for for years. When he will actually make that impact has yet to be determined, but I think it will be sooner than people think.
2016 Prediction: Early season depth corner that sees the field more and more as the season progresses, eventually becoming a top 3 corner by the end of the season. Becomes a full-time starter by second season.
2. Sean Davis, S, Maryland
Just like Burns, Davis is a raw prospect who suffered from being moved around the secondary throughout his career. While at Maryland, Davis showed the ability to play both corner and safety, where he showed big-play potential and the ability to deliver devastating hits. Whenever he played corner, he showed inconsistency in man coverage, which was likely due to inexperience at the position. With the Steelers, he will settle in at safety, where he will not have to play man coverage nearly as much. One thing that should excite Steelers fans about Davis is his ability to cover tight ends aggressively, which has been an issue for the Steelers in recent years. Robert Golden will likely be the starter at the beginning of the season due to experience while Davis learns the defense, but with the lackluster performance over the past 3 years from Shamarko Thomas, Davis will probably get most of his chances to play off the bench in dime packages at the beginning of the season, which is the same role that Golden performed in last season. There is no denying that Davis is a much better prospect than Golden, especially when you consider that Golden has almost reached his ceiling as a player. I love Golden as a player and think he is a stud on special teams for the Steelers but the Steelers did not draft Davis to keep him off of the field. If Davis proves that he can handle time on the field in the Steelers subpackages, it is only a matter of time before he sees the field as a full-time starter. I believe that a realistic date for this will be around the bye week, especially if Golden struggles to consistently perform as the starter opposite of Mike Mitchell.
2016 Prediction: Starts the season as the team’s dime safety off the bench, eventually surpassing Robert Golden as the teams starting safety opposite of Mike Mitchell by the bye week.
3. Javon Hargrave, DL, South Carolina State
As I previously mentioned, Javon Hargrave was one of the top two nose tackles in this draft class (along with Baylor’s Andrew Billings). The difference between Hargrave and Billings? Hargrave boasts much more versatility along the defensive line. Although he played against weaker competition in college, the numbers don’t lie: during his junior and senior seasons, he amassed 114 tackles, 29.5 sacks, and 46 tackles for a loss. Regardless of level of competition, this production is incredible for an interior defensive lineman. Defensive line coach John Mitchell believes that Hargrave has the potential to be a 3-down lineman and even relieve Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt to help preserve them longer considering that they play more than almost every single defensive player on the team. Of all the draft picks this season, I believe that Hargrave has the greatest potential to see the field as a starter the quickest. Daniel McCullers will start the season as the starter, but it would not be a surprise to see Hargrave to crack the starting lineup within the first few weeks of the season. While McCullers is a huge human being and an absolute wall, he has had plenty of consistency issues and struggles to keep his pad level down, which should not be a problem for the stocky Hargrave. There is no arguing that Hargrave is the superior athlete and at best, Hargrave will be the day 1 starter at nose tackle for the Steelers. At worst, he will be the starter by the end of the season. Either way, he will see plenty of time on the field with how much the Steelers like to rotate their linemen, which is crucial considering conditioning is another area where McCullers has struggled.
2016 Prediction: Spends the first few weeks of the season as a subpackage player behind Daniel McCullers, earning a spot in the starting lineup by Week 4 in primetime against the Chiefs.
4. Jerald Hawkins, OT, LSU
Jerald Hawkins was one of my favorite offensive lineman to breakdown during the pre-draft process due to his tremendous size and athleticism. LSU didn’t always ask a lot from him by relying more on his natural ability more than pure technique. His versatility is definitely a plus because of the time he spent on both sides of the line while in college. He showed great balance as a pass blocker in college, which is surprising considering how upright he often played, which will be something offensive line guru Mike Munchak will try to workout. With left tackle being a wide open battle right now, Hawkins will get his fair share of reps to see what he brings to the table. The main issue with Hawkins is his technique but there is no one better to learn from than Munchak, who has helped turn the Steelers line into one of the best in the league. The odds of Hawkins winning the starting job this year on the left side are slim to none, but his development will no doubt be an exciting process to watch. Ryan Harris is nothing more than a veteran addition to the roster and Alejandro Villanueva is not a guaranteed commodity so if Hawkins develops the way the Steelers feel he can, he could come in and compete in year two for the starting job. For 2016, however, the bench will likely be his home unless injuries force him into early playing time, which is always a possibility with the Steelers. Regardless, Hawkins is a promising lineman that will have plenty of time to develop with the Steelers offensive line being practically set in stone, especially with Marcus Gilbert at right tackle.
2016 Prediction: Spends the season as a developmental offensive lineman, eventually seeing time if the Villanueva experiment doesn’t work out. Will help Ryan Harris as a swing-tackle on the team to gain experience.
6. Travis Feeney, OLB, Washington
To say the Steelers were high on Travis Feeney might be an understatement. They were looking for ways to trade up into the 5th round to select the uber athlete from Washington. When Feeney fell to the 6th round, the team wasted little time to snag the safety turned linebacker. The main story with Feeney will be if he can find a way to remain healthy, which will be concerning for the team considering that he has had multiple surgeries on both shoulders that have caused him to miss time over his playing career. Feeney is one of the most athletic linebackers in this draft class and if he is able to crack the final 53-man roster, he will find a home on special teams early on, where he also loved to play and flourished while at Washington. Feeney could add some weight to his frame without hurting his athleticism, but with the future outlook of the outside linebacker position being up in the air for the Steelers, Feeney could find himself seeing the field as early as his second year. This is all speculation, though, since he will have to work to even make the final roster in the first place. As a 6th round pick, the odds are always stacked against you to make the roster but if anyone can do it, it will be Feeney if he stays healthy. His primary competition will be second year player Anthony Chickillo, who did not show much outside of special teams as a rookie last year and is not a guarantee to make the final roster this season. If Feeney makes the final roster, he will be a special teams ace while he develops and could see more playing time as his years progress in Pittsburgh.
2016 Prediction: Will make the final roster cuts due to special teams potential and athletic versatility. Will be a non-factor to the defense during his rookie year.
7. DeMarcus Ayers, WR, Houston
Originally, I was very harsh on the selection of DeMarcus Ayers but the tape doesn’t lie: he is an electrifying punt returner and a sure-handed receiver. As it stands, receiver is far from a huge need for the Steelers but it is imperative that the team find someone to replace Antonio Brown as the primary punt returner. You DO NOT want your star receiver returning punts in games, no matter how good he is at doing it. Period. Already without Martavis Bryant this season, losing Brown could be crushing for the best offense in the NFL. If that injury came on special teams, it would almost be a slap in the face and do no one any service. Ayers’ best shot to make the roster (or any impact at all, for that matter) will be on special teams as a returner. The Steelers (especially special teams coach Danny Smith) were high on Ayers, ranking him as the best return man in the draft. If that’s the case, he hopefully can show enough to take over as the primary return man for the Steelers. If he can add anything on offense, that would just be an added bonus. Realistically, I see Ayers making the final roster and relieving Brown of his return duties.
2016 Prediction: Will be the team’s starting punt returner by Week 1 of the season and will find himself as the #5 receiver on the team, seeing occasional time on offense during big blowouts after beating out Eli Rogers for the final receiver spot on the roster.
7. Tyler Matakevich, ILB, Temple
Bronko Nagurski Trophy winner. Chuck Bednarik Award winner. Consensus All-American. 493 career tackles. 40 career tackles for a loss. These are the accolades of someone that would likely be considered a surefire 1st round draft pick. That is not the case for Temple linebacker Tyler Matakevich. Matakevich is the type of player that all Steelers fans will be cheering for this summer since he an old-school overachieving middle linebacker. He is an amazing leader, a student of the game, has tremendous instincts, and brings a fantastic work ethic with a lunch-box mentality. The reason Matakevich fell this far in the draft is largely due to his size and speed. Although his 4.81 40 time was anything but special, he plays much faster on the field, looking like a player who runs in the 4.5-4.6 range. With his technique being very polished, there is very little he can’t do. The Steelers don’t have a pressing need at inside linebacker right now, but after losing some crucial depth in the offseason, there will be a wide open battle for the last spots. Only Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons are locks to make the final roster. With Timmons, Vince Williams, and Steven Johnson only having 1 year left on their contracts, Matakevich has the potential to make an on-field impact at some point early in his career. Just like Feeney, though, Matakevich’s home will likely be on special teams if he makes the final roster. If he doesn’t make the roster, it is hard to imagine that he wouldn’t be one of the first guys the Steelers would want on their practice squad.
2016 Prediction: Will make the final 53-man roster after a high-effort training camp and be a special teams ace throughout his rookie season. Sees some time off the bench at inside linebacker by the end of the season in relief of Lawrence Timmons.
Now while I know that it is highly unlikely that every rookie makes the final roster, I wouldn’t put it past this rookie class to be the one that is able to do it. The 1st 4 picks are all but locks to make the roster and the last 3 all were tremendous value picks. If the final 3 can make enough of an impression on special teams with their potential, it would not be a surprise to see them all make the roster. At the least, they will find a spot on the practice squad after the final roster cuts. Last season, all but Gerod Holliman made the final roster at some point in the season (Golson would have had it not been for his season ending injury) so it is not out of the ordinary to see this happen, especially on defense where the Steelers are trying to get better.
As critical as people are of the Steelers 2016 draft class, it is more built on potential than instant impact players, but the Steelers have shown a willingness to play rookies more and more in recent years and I believe 2016 to only continue that trend, especially with the teams top 3 picks. That is not to say that there won’t be any growing pains because there definitely will be. But even a player as raw as Burns will see the field earlier than most people realize. The Steelers don’t draft 1st round players to be a special teams ace. Even Ziggy Hood and Jarvis Jones made impacts their rookie year. And that’s saying something.
Don’t be surprised when this draft is the class that helps fill out the rest of the defense that makes strides this year to help the Steelers get after their 7th Super Bowl ring.
It’s just a matter of “when” moreso than “if”.